Executive Search in the United States: Career Transition Insights from Fortune-500 Top Managers

Executive Search in the United States: Career Transition Insights from Fortune-500 Top Managers

Executive Search in the United States: Career Transition Insights from Fortune-500 Top Managers 1024 682 Elisabeth Constantin

In the area of job search best practices, international leaders often look at how top executives in the United States administer their career transitions.

Why are Americans specifically so well-versed in navigating the world of Executive Search and maximizing ROI in titles and compensation?

Much of it is cultural. U.S. corporations are extremely quick to hire and fire. While the Tech sector is notoriously the poster child for layoff media coverage, ‘fire-fast’ is generally the norm. It’s considered business as usual in the U.S. Whereas in countries like Germany, reductions in workforce can cause national concern and even government involvement.

So, what can we learn and why do American career transitions deserve a closer look? This article shines a light on some practices that propel executive gravitas.

1. Managing Their Public Profile

American executives treat their careers like a business that must always grow, stay profitable, and be prepared for economic downturns. They also understand that quality and access to the next position depends on more than the work they do today. As such, a lot of time and attention is invested in establishing their industry reputation and professional brand.

This includes building and maintaining their profile as a public speaker, thought leader, think tank advisor, philanthropist and seeking opportunities that offer prestige and access to exclusive networks. Additionally, to manage their public image, a large portion of top-level leaders have their LinkedIn and other platforms professionally managed.

Pro Tip:

  • We recommend curating a speaker profile at the middle management level. Not only does it take years to build a portfolio and rapport with conference organizers, it also enhances professional networks and gravitas within the organization.
  • Conference budgets are often negotiated as part of employment offers to ensure such opportunities can be pursued.

2. They Begin Their Board Career Early

For many years, board service was an activity for retired C-Suite executives. Those days are long gone. Today, the synergies work both ways: board service is widely regarded as an amplifier for C-level roles and considered an asset in succession stress-testing assessments. In the United States, securing the first paid board position is a 1-5 year journey. Given the growing complexities of today’s world, boards require increasingly more functional expertise to
govern effectively. This has opened more doors for functional leaders below the C-Level, adding younger and more diverse talent. Corporate board service is often referred to as ‘a career on top of your career’ where patience is required. Due to the 1-5 year runway, executives begin their search often as early as at the Director Level. Demand is high, especially for leaders with P/L and Finance experience, since Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002. But, other functional leaders from areas like Technology, Investor Relations, Legal, or HR, also see increased opportunities for Board and Committee work.

Pro Tip:

  • Non-fiduciary advisory and startup boards can be great pathways into paid board careers. Most board careers require working their way ‘in’ and ‘up’. The initial driver should never be compensation, but to deliver value to the organization, its board, and to gain relevant boardroom experience.

3. Building Relationships with the World’s Leading Executive Search Firms

Tenured executives build and maintain deep global connections within firms like Egon Zehnder, Kornferry, Heidrick & Struggles, etc. It’s not uncommon to hear that senior leaders maintain their connections via Excel to keep track of their conversations, market intel, and the personal aspects of these sought-after relationships. Building relationships takes time and the more elite and high-profile the talent pool becomes, the more Executive Search becomes a relationship business.

Pro Tip:

  • Since top-level positions rarely get posted publicly, it’s more important than ever to grow an executive search network early. Every year in November, Forbes polls for their annual Executive Search Firm ranking, with results going public each May. These listings and search firm websites are a great place for researching sector/industry leaders at the Managing Partner level and begin the relationship-building process.

4. Timing and Prep Work Behind the Scenes

Whether in internal or external advancement scenarios, timing and planning are everything. Top level leaders usually prepare for months before beginning their search. Their application materials and LinkedIn have been updated behind the scenes. They have done their compensation research to be prepared for the next level or an industry-pivot. Legal counsel has been identified to review offers and employment contracts, and they have brushed up on their negotiation skills if needed, since in the U.S. severance packages are routinely negotiated upon entry.

Pro Tip:

  • American employers attribute higher value to passive candidates than those who are actively in the market. Being recruited from a competitor enhances gravitas, reputation and provides leverage. Therefore, U.S. executives always favor being tipped off to C-Suite leaders, board directors, and high-profile headhunters versus reaching out themselves.

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Summary: Consistent focus and networking are the key

In America, it’s widely accepted that everyone is replaceable at a moment’s notice. As such, senior leaders work hard — both on the public stage and behind the scenes — to secure access for their next opportunity; even when seemingly not in the market.

U.S. leaders treat their careers like a business and are always ‘for sale’ if opportunity and price are right. Due to the volatility that ‘fire-fast’ imposes on careers, there needs to be a consistent focus on optimizing and maintaining access to prestige networks, industry events, headhunting firms, negotiating payouts aggressively on the way in, and launching board service as early as possible to create C-Suite pathways. It’s a multi-prong approach that’s widely by leaders, adapted world-wide as they carve out their long term careers with patience and persistence.


Eine deutsche Übersetzung dieses Beitrags finden Sie auf der Website von The Boardroom: Executive Search in den Vereinigten Staaten 

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[Photos: ©Adobe stock – Dragana Gordic / BullRun]

Elisabeth Constantin

Elisabeth Constantin began her professional journey in Europe in Marketing and Communications, B2B Sales, and Education. After moving to the United States in 2010, she built an award-wining career in global HR Service Delivery, Compensation, and Expatriate Consulting. She founded ABREO after a decade of serving Fortune executives’ career transitions across North and Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. Constantin was educated in Germany and further at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, MA.

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